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Right in the middle of downtown Winnipeg is The Forks, a downtown park of shops, food, outdoor entertainment and craft beer, hugging the edge of the Assiniboine River just before it joins the Red River.
And The Forks in late June is the sweetest of sweet spots. Small boats nudge through the silty water, kids run around on imported sand, adults sit in chairs with beer or wine, relaxed enough to tell secrets in front of strangers: who’s sleeping with who, who got caught where while wearing how few shreds of both clothing and dignity.
The air last week was full of the smell of mock orange shrubs, all in full dripping bloom, the air a solid wall of 30 degrees, just starting to cool into evening.
But from where I sat, a solid example of a big issue in the next federal election was trundling right by me.
Now, I don’t think I’m firmly in either the “build pipelines” camp or the “don’t build pipelines” camp. I think I’m in the “high standards and constant government inspection” camp for either option.
But I’d just say that the current solution doesn’t look much like a solution.
It looks like a train wreck waiting to happen — sorry, was that too flip?
I was at The Forks for three and a half hours last Saturday, give or take. I was in a wide dark blue Adirondack chair, drinking a pint of some version of the cloudy IPA I’m inordinately fond of, watching a blond four-year-old somehow dispatch an entire foot-long hotdog, when the first train rumbled over the rail bridge crossing the Assiniboine River right next to the park.
I’d say it was playing peek-a-boo through the trees, except there’s nothing about trains that’s got anything to do with peek-a-boo.
You hear the deep rumble long before they appear; long trains with two engines at the front, another hard-working diesel engine about two-thirds of the way through the train. More than 100 cars in all, wheels tapping rhythmically over the joins in the rails.
Some were boxcars: a larger number of flat cars carrying shipping containers, sometimes double-stacked. But most of all, more than anything else, tank cars.
I have to point out that I don’t know what was in the tanker cars — I don’t know if they were gasoline or crude oil or chemicals — I don’t even know if they were full or empty. But they were constant, pulsing by with metronomic regularity. And, as the Winnipeg Free Press pointed out in January, 10 million barrels of crude oil went into the United States from Canada by rail in October of 2018 alone. The main route? Through Winnipeg.
Over the Assiniboine, the train kept rumbling by, wheels occasionally shrieking.
And that was train one. In the next few hours came trains two, three, four and five, all of them equally long, all of them with what appeared to be a preponderance of tank cars.
You could say the rail system is built for that kind of traffic, and that accidents are unlikely.
But they do happen.
Around 820,000 litres of crude oil was spilled in a train derailment in western Manitoba, near St. Lazare, in February. Sixteen rail tankers ruptured in that incident.
I saw easily 15 times as many tanker cars as that pass by The Forks, albeit at slower speeds than the 79 km/h that the St. Lazare train was travelling at before it derailed.
In Winnipeg, homeowners complain to the Free Press that the constant heavy rail traffic is cracking foundations, that doors no longer shut in their doorframes.
Back in 2016, the CBC used standards for new building next to downtown rail lines to look at existing properties, and found that 15,000 parcels of Winnipeg land that were inside what would be buffer zones if they were newly-built properties.
And that takes me back to the beginning: there may be lots of reasons to not want pipelines to the coast and tankers angling through narrow coastal routes.
But thousands of rail tank cars shifting through urban neighbourhoods are not really a solution, either.
Good luck to any federal politician who wants to dip their feet into this particular no-win controversy. I’ll stick to my Adirondack chair for this one.
Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wangersky.